How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Fake Nostalgia of Instagram
Put away the haterade. Photo filters are here to stay—and they even serve a good purpose.
It’s easy to pour the hate on Instagram. Or Hipstamatic, Camera 360, Line Camera, any of the bazillion photo filter apps out there. Great, say the camera snobs. Now we have millions of philistines making bogus art out of their stupid Mai Tais and babies. They don’t even know what a tilt shift lens is, let alone a tintype.
And true, we’re now able to enjoy an infinite stream of cappuccino foam portraits all tastefully distressed with push-button ease. Or dogs, or donuts. We’ve amassed a monument to vanity on a global scale with our obsessive habit of documenting every mundane moment of everyday life. College Humor did a brilliant parody of this phenomenon (which you really should watch, and then re-watch).
But all this filter madness makes sense in my opinion. Here’s why.
Filters mimic a sense of place and time. Digital photography is perfect and timeless. It never ages. A photo taken ten years ago looks the same today, and will look the same forever. Compare that to photos from just 20 years ago, waaaaaay back in the 1990's. A photo taken then had a certain look to it—high fidelity, usually glossy or on matte paper, or Polaroid instant. Take a few steps back to the 1970's, and now photos have rounded corners and textured finish. Go back further, and photos have white borders and maybe feature a little timestamp. Even older photos are sepia or black & white.
In other words, photos used to have a specific look tied to a specific period of time. We’ve lost that with digital photography, and people feel groundless without it. So boom, they add a filter. Suddenly their photo (taken moments ago) looks as if it were unearthed from the ‘60's. It makes no logical sense to say this, but: merely giving digital photos the appearance of a specific era makes them feel almost as satisfying as if they had actually come from that era.
Filters age photos, and aging is important. Those old photos also did something digital photos will never do: they changed color over time. They yellowed (or greened, or oranged). They got blurry. Or scuffed and dog-eared after years of being shuffled around. This isn’t damage—it’s the character and experience that come with age, that patina we revere when looking at the wrinkled faces of our elderly heroes or even just a wooden door that’s handsomely cracked and peeled after years in the sun.
We regard lots of other personal items this way. Almost no one buys fresh blue jeans, for example, opting instead for some kind of pre-distressed version. Half the furniture in my house is “antiqued” in some way. Plenty of t-shirts are deliberately silkscreened to look old, too. We need things to show clear signs age in order to feel connected to the past, youth-obsessed media be damned. (Except cars and computers. We want those weapons of technological advantage to feel ever new, unfamiliar, and therefore intimidating to our tribal enemies.) Faced with the relentless nowness of digital media, we busily apply filters—ruining the accurate color our high-tech phones provide in order to carve out a place in distant memory, however false.
Fake nostalgia keeps us from going crazy. Since digital media is impervious to time, it is also highly resistent to the effects of memory: that special process by which we sift through past events, throw out irrelevant details, and add focus to the parts that matter. We do this when we dream, too, in order to make sense of our daily experience. Otherwise we’d be mired in the cacophany of the present, a whirlwind of chaotic events all equal in significance. And that’s insanity!
So, we have photo filters. They’re part of a booming nostalgia for analog media in general. Visit Kitson or Urban Outfitters and you’ll see accessories based on audio cassettes, Motorola StarTac-style flip phones, boom boxes, or vinyl records. I myself have an old rotary phone (working, but purely decorative) and a manual typewriter (which I never use) in my house.
I gaze upon these artifacts through the corrective lens of the present. I don’t complain about how it sucked to dial phone numbers (especially zeros)on a rotary phone. Or how it was such a pain waiting for white-out to dry on the page when typing. I see the good things: the calls to childhood friends, the satisfying struggle of writing papers in college. I keep these totems to signify a past I have made sense of, and therefore have gained wisdom from.
Old stuff just feels cooler. Our smartphones may be able to do everything in one tiny package, but they bring a sameness to life that people find dissatisfying. Want to take a photo? Tap this piece of glass. Want to draw a picture? Tap this piece of glass. Want to write a letter? You get the point.
Old stuff is different. Manual typewriters require finger strength. They clack and ding and press words into paper, nothing else. Plus, they’re heavy. Same with Polaroid cameras, or Walkmen—old things are all about physicality and specificity of purpose, characteristics we find appealing because they mirror the endless variety of function-specific evolutions found in nature. There’s also the yearning for simplicity that comes with performing one task only as an escape from the modern illusion of multi-tasking.
Photography, which used to be so dependent on singular physical factors like camera, lens, futzy chemicals, and mistakes, has for many mainstream consumers become conformed down to an intellectual wisp. Convenient and boundless, but unsatisfying. Photo filters are an easy way to bring that physicality back to picture-taking. They give our memories the weight we instinctively feel they should have.
So who cares that 50,000 people have taken the same scratchy sepia photo of their cat? It’s not about art—it’s about framing the present in a way that makes sense, using cues from the past (I’m guilty as hell of this, as evidenced by my own instant-nostalgia producing photo app Flashback Camera). Go easy on these filter fans. They’re just following the same instincts you are with your vintage jeans, handbag, coffee table or what-have-you. What I’m looking forward to is how our current nostalgia will be viewed twenty years from now—the fond memory of a fond memory, a mirror looking in on itself.